The war knocked again when mounting tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan — exacerbated by the bin Laden raid — meant that their visas would not be renewed, that they would have no choice but to return.
Rahmatullah had been sent to Kabul several weeks before the rest of the family to look for a home big enough for 23 people but cheap enough for the poor refugee family. He arrived on the same day that the Taliban executed a coordinated attack in seven locations across the country.
He called his father while the assault continued and pleaded, “Let’s not move. Let’s never move here.”
But Bismillah said they must. The Pakistani government had made life hard for Afghan refugees, he said. He was getting old. He wanted to die on his own soil.
So the family hired a driver with an open-roof truck and piled in their belongings: electric fans, carpets, bicycles, anything that would fit. Then the brothers each stuffed their bags and pockets with more sentimental items. Mohammed Ullah took photos of his classmates. Rahmatullah took a poster of his favorite park in Islamabad. Esmatullah took a shirt that said “Karachi.”
They drove through the night in early June, arriving as the sun rose at a UNHCR center on the outskirts of Kabul, where dozens of other families had lined up to be processed. An employee went from truck to truck asking families why they had decided to return. Most had come from refugee camps outside Peshawar, the largest city in Pakistan’s northwest. They accepted about $150 per person from the U.N. agency and disappeared to the surrounding districts or provinces, often to land doled out by the government.
When his turn came, Bismillah told the U.N. employee, “We’re here because we’re tired of being harassed in Pakistan. We are ready to come home.” He handed over a nearly expired refugee identification card.
Three days later, the 23 relatives had squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment with no electricity or running water. Most of the brothers slept on the floor.
Even Bismillah, first wowed by the city’s growth, was becoming frustrated. He got lost on his way to an old mosque, confused by a flurry of new activity on a familiar street. Still, the city seemed secure, he said: “We can walk around here. It is safe.”
His sons were not convinced. A week before they arrived, an American airstrike killed a family of five in their ancestral province of Paktia. A week after, more than 20 civilians were killed in a mix of Taliban attacks and NATO airstrikes in a single day. On local television stations, experts railed against what they called an insidious Pakistani influence.
Rahmatullah worried that his neighbors would accuse him of being a Pakistani spy and threaten the family. Someone pointed to his thick mustache — a fashion common in Pakistan but unusual in beard-loving Afghanistan — and asked him whether he was a foreigner. He considered shaving the mustache off.
“We stand out here,” he said. “It’s like we don’t belong.”
Mohammed Ullah dropped out of school to work at a construction site with a few of his brothers. He keeps his Abbottabad friends’ class portraits in his pocket while he mixes cement. He tells people that he’s Afghan, but he feels Pakistani.
Still, Bismillah was hopeful. His sons will come around, he said, and security in Afghanistan will improve.
Mohammed Ullah doesn’t pretend to believe his father.
“When I leave,” he said, “I will never come back.”